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One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, community associations have become experts in virtual meetings, social distancing, face masks, disinfecting procedures, and more. As vaccines roll out, what comes next?
By Kiara Candelaria
HELPING HOMEOWNERS looks quite different now at Saw Creek Estates Community Association in Bushkill, Pa., than it did a year ago.
Following a state government requirement to work remotely unless impossible to do so, management staff alternate between working from home and on-site to keep capacity in the office at less than half at all times, says Elijah T. Jones, CMCA, AMS, general manager at the large-scale community of 2,600 homes.
The office is open four days a week from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for in-person appointments; the first hour is reserved for homeowners considered high risk. A deep cleaning is conducted during lunchtime.
“We allow two people in the office lobby, and the others wait outdoors," says Jones, noting that they opened one of the office windows to provide service to more owners simultaneously and help reduce lines during the winter months. He also continues to conduct meetings virtually and schedules in-person appointments when needed, particularly to welcome new homeowners to the community.
Indoor events have been replaced with outdoor offerings (following limited capacity and safety protocols) or virtual alternatives. “We planned our 2021 event calendar as if COVID-19 restrictions were not in place. We will cancel or alter the format as we get to them until restrictions ease," says Jones.
Similar measures, protocols, and adjustments have been in place at many other community associations to ensure continuity of operations since COVID-19-related lockdowns began across the U.S. last March.
Community association boards and managers adapted quickly to the challenges from the pandemic, seeking legal advice on holding meetings virtually, closing and reopening amenities, requiring the use of face coverings in common areas, and limiting liability to the association if there was a positive case inside the community. They revised budgets to account for higher expenses and revenue losses while finding ways to minimize assessment hikes, and they have maintained cleaning and disinfecting of frequently touched surfaces and high-transit areas.
Now, a year after the pandemic upended every aspect of life, association leaders are looking at what comes next, including continued encouragement to wear face coverings, paying attention to updates on vaccines as they are rolled out, and lessons learned to carry forward.
Face mask requirements have gone smoothly in most communities, according to sources interviewed for this article, despite masks becoming a highly politicized issue in 2020.
Nancy T. Polomis, an attorney with Hellmuth and Johnson in Minneapolis, which represents around 400 community associations in Minnesota and Wisconsin, says association boards have been diligent about posting signage reminding people to wear face coverings and maintain social distance. While some have considered stricter enforcement, Polomis has advised against this approach.
“There are some exceptions to the face covering mandate that might not be readily apparent, most of them health related. It's not appropriate for someone to say, 'You need to be wearing a mask,' because it may well be that you have chronic bronchitis and wearing a mask puts you at risk," she explains.
It's also a matter of maintaining harmony in the community and accepting that some people will adjust their behavior and some will not, she adds. “You can encourage people and remind them of the risks of not wearing a mask, but if they don't want to wear one, I don't know that fining them is going to have any effect except to make them angry," says Polomis. “The gentle reminders tend to be more effective."
Warren Buckingham, board vice president at Parkside Plaza condominium in Silver Spring, Md., an 18-story high-rise with 255 units, says the community has not had trouble with residents foregoing a face mask while in the building's common areas. Buckingham, who has a background in public health, was tasked with forming an ad-hoc committee to coordinate the COVID-19 response in the community, working alongside management to engage with residents on the evolving nature of the disease.
Parkside Plaza initially maintained a record of people who did not follow the state's mask mandate as implemented in the community but decided against enforcing a fine structure for violations. “Our attorney pointed out to us that, unless we had the confidence that we would be able to be 100% consistent applying those rules, then we really did open ourselves up to some liability for indiscriminate enforcement," he explains.
For most communities, virtual meetings have become appealing for board members and residents due to their convenience and flexibility. Higher at tendance and participation is making them an option even after communities can return to in-person meetings.
As vaccines started being administered in phases early in 2021, some communities were waiting on guidance from state and local government and keeping residents informed of any updates as they were rolled out.
Others, like Sea Ranch Club of Boca Raton, were hoping to apply to have vaccines administered to residents as they become available to the broader population. “There have been discussions regarding the county (setting up) a mobile vaccination lab," says Leslie Alvarez, CMCA, AMS, LSM, PCAM, manager of the community of four high-rise buildings and 19 townhomes in South Florida. “We have made contact to try and identify if we can coordinate a vaccination site at our community."
With vaccines becoming a reality, a new question has developed for community association board members: Can we require proof of vaccination from homeowners?
Generally, community associations may not require residents to provide medical information and cannot compel them to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccine, says David W. Kaman, partner at Ohio law firm Kaman and Cusimano and president of the 2021 Board of Governors of CAI's College of Community Association Lawyers (CCAL).
“An association with employees, however, may be able to require that they show proof of obtaining the vaccine if it becomes a requirement of employment," he says. Associations should review this matter with their legal counsel prior to taking that step.
Communities that decide to work with a health care provider to distribute COVID-19 vaccines when they become available to the broader population “must make it clear that the health care provider, not the association, is providing, distributing, and ultimately responsible for the vaccine and any medical information," Kaman notes.
Polomis says one of the associations she represents does plan to bring a medical professional to administer vaccines as a convenience to the residents. “A lot of times, it's more a matter of being proactive and making it easy for residents to get their vaccine, which in turn helps the entire community," she explains.
She encourages associations to update residents via email or a newsletter if the community or the locality will be administering vaccines but warns against sounding like they are forcing residents to receive a dose.
“Aside from whatever opposition someone might have to a vaccine, there also are other medical reasons why people would not get them," says Polomis. “Trying to impose a requirement that people provide proof of vaccination is ill-advised, and probably would lead to very bad consequences for the association."
For most communities, virtual meetings have become appealing for board members and residents due to their convenience and flexibility. Higher attendance and participation is making them an option even after communities can return to in-person meetings.
All of Parkside Plaza's meetings have been conducted virtually during the pandemic, except the annual meeting, which was held in a hybrid format in the building's main lobby with about 15 residents in attendance. “We actually had significantly increased turnout because people were able to join virtually," says Buckingham, adding that engagement has led to more substantive discussions about association matters, such as the annual budget draft.
Although management staff worked remotely during the initial stages of pandemic lockdowns, Alvarez says all staff are now in the on-site management office, wearing face coverings and personal protective equipment depending on their level of contact with residents. “We survey employees daily for symptoms or known contact, and we are quick to send someone for a test and to quarantine at home if there is any suspicion of COVID-19," she says.
Lisa Cox, CMCA, AMS, LSM, PCAM, community manager at Sienna Associations in Missouri City, Texas, and chair-elect of CAI's 2021 Community Association Managers Council, says protocols have been established in case of positive COVID-19 cases, both for residents and management staff, that include thorough cleaning and contact-tracing.
The protocols for staff consider different scenarios depending on whether an employee has been potentially exposed to COVID-19 or contracted the disease. For example, employees who have had COVID-19 must test negative before coming back on-site.
Cox says the community is optimistic that they will be able to start holding small events in person in late spring or early summer, and that they can go back to having their pool season on a regular schedule. “I do anticipate still having virtual meetings in the future, but in-person or hybrid meetings also may be added this summer," she notes.
“We have found some really inspiring ways of strengthening the sense of community in the building, even though we couldn't be physically in one another's presence. We want to hold on to that as we look at the future."
Maintaining continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that some of the changes communities made will become permanent.
At Sienna Associations, many former in-person processes will stay online, including handing out ID cards for the fitness center, modification requests, and the option for committee members to join virtual meetings when needed.
“The pandemic has gotten residents better acclimated to our community app for facility use and activity information and our website for resources," says Cox. She adds that one of the management office's conference rooms also is being updated to allow for hybrid meetings.
Cox notes that the management staff will return to work on-site, but now they are better positioned to work remotely should the situation call for it, such as during the Atlantic hurricane season. “At least we've gone through the exercise of getting all of our staff set up to work from home, so that's a benefit," she says.
In the long term, the community hopes to provide feedback to developers when designing buildings and lobbies to consider spacing needs and spots that can hold notices and community updates without taping multiple papers or signage on doors and gates. “We've learned quite a bit about signage and identified ways to do it as attractively, yet effectively, as possible," says Cox.
Going forward, Polomis plans to include provisions when drafting governing documents that explicitly allow virtual meetings since state statutes are unclear about permitting them. New provisions also will include set guidelines on how online meetings should be conducted.
“I expect that as things calm down, more associations may be looking for some of that guidance to formalize those kinds of procedures, rules, and the processes for voting electronically or at a virtual meeting," she notes.
Jones of Saw Creek Estates feels that the biggest lesson from the pandemic is leveraging technology to meet the needs of homeowners. “Many residents and staff have been thrust into virtual meetings and carrying on with business while not being face to face. We continue to refine processes to make them more efficient, but I believe the pandemic really jump-started thinking outside of the box," he remarks.
For Alvarez, the biggest lesson to maintain going forward is being fast and efficient when it comes to communicating with staff and residents as a situation develops. “Quick, clear, and consistent communication is absolutely necessary in any emergency, but all the more so during this prolonged event," she notes. “The rumor mill is fast and furious, especially in a state of panic, so getting ahead of the rumors is absolutely imperative."
Buckingham says that with employers considering allowing greater flexibility to work remotely, the board is considering adapting its community room and park-like plaza to become resources for residents who prefer to switch locations when working from home or want a place to socialize.
“We very much expect that there will be long-term changes to how we live in this building," he adds. The switch to more frequent remote work also is making Parkside Plaza's board consider how to address increases in utility usage and managing noise complaints, for example.
One of the main things that Buckingham hopes will continue are the community's virtual activities, many of which were organized to provide joy and levity throughout the pandemic. “We have found some really inspiring ways of strengthening the sense of community in the building, even though we couldn't be physically in one another's presence. We want to hold on to that as we look at the future."
Kiara Candelaria is the associate editor of Common Ground™ magazine and editor of Community Manager newsletter. Laura Otto, CAI's senior editor of digital content, contributed to this article.
By Chris Wetmore, CMCA, AMS, PCAM
THE BIG, BOLD, RED LETTERS conveyed the message no one wants to see in the middle of a pandemic: POSITIVE. The reason behind the concerning headache for several days was finally explained.
I contacted the board the same day and the rest of the team within a few days. We did not inform the community, and only a couple of owners subsequently learned of my COVID-19 diagnosis. Thankfully, the team at Blue Ridge Mountain Club Property Owners Association was already prepped on isolation and practicing social distancing. Most of us had been working remotely for some time.
Unfortunately, the diagnosis came just two-and-a-half weeks before our virtual annual meeting. I immediately began preparing to be out sick for several weeks. I delegated what I could to management team members, put up an out of office with no return date, and continued to work behind the scenes as I was able.
I drove my wife, an intensive-care-unit-trained nurse, nuts with questions. I knew what we were dealing with was very real and to prepare for the unknown. As an active 40-year-old, I stayed positive and hoped for the best.
The headache started minor, turned severe after a few days, and lingered for a week and a half. That was followed by a loss of taste and smell for two weeks. It was a weird experience—almost like being in a black and white cartoon. Eating cheese was like eating cold mud. I sought crunchy foods because that was fun. If it weren't for texture, you wouldn't know whether you were eating spinach or pizza.
The worst symptom of all was the extreme fatigue. It lasted more than six weeks and was exponentially worse than any other sickness I've had. I'll forever remember the fatigue as debilitating. I never developed a fever.
My 4-year-old exhibited no symptoms, but my 6-year-old had some aches and pains and ended up missing a month of school. The extreme fatigue combined with two rambunctious, quarantine-tired boys with endless requests for food, drink, and play seemed never-ending.
After I ended my quarantine period, a handful of days before the annual meeting, I developed bronchitis. My doctor's office asked me to come in through the back door. I didn't know that was a thing.
For more than a month, walking up the stairs or any remedial task resulted in dizziness and needing to lay down.
Prior to my diagnosis, we wore personal protective equipment, we socially distanced, and we did everything we were supposed to do. Sometimes, you just have bad luck.
My family will be getting vaccinations when they are available to us. We believe they are important to protect us and other people. One of my sons has high functioning autism. Some parents of children with autism shy away from vaccines. We do not.
My Blue Ridge Mountain Club team members, especially those in our restaurant and fitness center, also are eager to get the vaccine.
Once we are vaccinated, and we can put COVID-19 behind us, I look forward to hosting in-person community events again and seeing family members we haven't seen in months.
Chris Wetmore is a community manager with Wilmington, N.C.-based Community Association Management Services, which manages Blue Ridge Mountain Club Property Owners Association in Blowing Rock, N.C.
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